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Balkanization is good

By Bruce Walker
web posted May 5, 2003

Two years ago (five months before September 11, 2001) I wrote an article for Enter Stage Right, Three Cheers for Balkanization!, which argues for breaking up the empires of the Old World with the following lines: "Indonesia, Iran, Iraq - you name it! All these bad guys who threaten freedom and peace have a common pattern: Oppression begins at home."

An Iraqi Kurd fighter stands in the front of the PUK peshmerga headquarters in the northern Iraqi city of Mosul on April 18
An Iraqi Kurd fighter stands in the front of the PUK peshmerga headquarters in the northern Iraqi city of Mosul on April 18

Hussein gained Sunni allies in Iraq because he kept the Kurds and Shiites more oppressed than his fellow Sunni. Iran is also a composite of peoples, many of who are oppressed and angry (recall that polyglot Afghanistan and Iraq are its closest neighbors). Synthetic Indonesia, brutal suppresser of East Timor, has more languages than any on Earth.

Even those nations which are not particularly ghastly - India, Pakistan and Indonesia, for example - are made much worse because these governments rule over many peoples who wish to live in smaller, separate and independent nations. India is the world's largest democracy, and in many ways it is a commendable nation.

Indira Gandhi was assassinated by Sikhs (who live in the northern part of the subcontinent) and a few years later, her son Rajiv was assassinated by Tamils (who live in the southern part of the subcontinent). Neither Indian prime minister was remotely as monstrous as Hussein or Castro, and the Sikhs and Tamils are basically decent peoples. The tragedy was compelling all the diverse religious, racial and linguistic groups of "India" to live within a single nation.

Balkanization is what happened to Europe after the Great War, when the aging Hapsburg, Romanov and Ottoman empires finally and fatally collapsed. The spark, of course, was the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand of Austria. Little noted, however, is that Ferdinand was a benign and thoughtful man, intent upon absorbing the Slavic peoples into coequal partnership with his Austrian Germans and the Hungarian Magyars.

Franz Joseph
Franz Joseph

Franz Joseph, the Emperor of this hodgepodge "nation" was also fundamentally good. During a period when Jews, particularly Jews of central and eastern Europe faced pogroms and discrimination, Franz Joseph was called "the King of Jerusalem" by grateful world Jewry, who saw and appreciated his strong disdain for anti-Semitism.

The specter of "Balkanization" has been posited as the cause behind great wars, but it was the very failure to "Balkanize" the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the Russian Empire, and the Ottoman Empire that led to some of the greatest tragedies in human history: the Great War, the rise of Communism, and the Armenian holocaust.

As we ponder how to deal with post-Hussein Iraq and how to counter the harassment of the frightened mullahs of Iran, splintering artificial polities into sensible, smaller nations should be given serious consideration. Foggy Bottom does not like Balkanization, because any hint that anyone with an AK-47 in his hand and his boots propped up on a desk that says "President" is a political leader, and not a murderous thug.

But what was the last fighting in Europe? Serbian and Bosnian regional rivalries (neither was completely innocent; neither was completely guilty) who had been compelled to live within a single nation, first one dominated by Ottoman Turks and then one dominated by Christian Serbs. The artificial clumping of peoples together against their will produces internal tensions that are either released in external aggression or internal suppression or both. Would-be world conquerors have understood this principle for millennia.

The methodology has been used by leftists within America for decades. Different groups of people are compelled to live together within a single government that intrudes into social and cultural values. Mormons, Orthodox Jews, Amish and others who simply wished to have their own, small home state are prevented from doing that when a "one size fits all" government is imposed on all.

Perhaps the greatest tragedy of blacks in America was when President Harrison was not able to form Oklahoma Territory as a new state in which emancipated slaves would be the majority, which would have allowed blacks to prosper by farming, ranching, oil drilling and a dozen other private and productive activities.

State government, which should have given blacks, like Mormons, with the perfect vehicle to become content, peaceful and prosperous Americans was denied them in the suffocating racism of the Deep South and the "interest group" government of big northern states. This forced blacks to rely upon the federal government for protection, and to effectively become political sharecroppers of this vast plantation.

Balkanization is effectively what happened to the English-speaking democracies after the American Revolutionary War. Though Americans, Brits, Irishmen, Canadians, Aussies and Scots have much more in common than most peoples, the voluntary disassociation of dominion nations from the United Kingdom has proven a priceless advantage.

When the British government opposed Hitler in 1939, the voluntary decisions of the governments of Canada, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa to join in the war against Nazism meant that these smaller populations were very effective allies (indeed, their contribution to victory is often overlooked, though critically important).

Later, when America entered the war, its effort to defeat Hitler was wholehearted and decisive - exactly because it was arrived at freely, albeit gradually, by the American people and their leaders. Only Ireland stayed neutral, but its food exports to Britain across the Irish Sea were more valuable than any military efforts that Erie could have provided.

Would American people have been better served if Texas had remained a Republic? Texas, as a separate nation with all its original territories, would have been roughly the size and power of France or Italy today. The Texicans might well have shown northerners and southerners how to abolish slavery without civil war.

If the genuine affection and voluntary cooperation of English-speaking democracies may well have been better for all of the populations of those nations, then how much better would real Balkanization be for the diverse peoples of tyrannical regimes or even more moderate governments, like those of post-independence India? Would the Bengali people prefer to rejoin the Moslems in what was once West Pakistan and which is now simply Pakistan? Three decades of history indicate that Balkanization helped both the Bengali people and the various Pakistani peoples.

Nations are like bureaucracies: they will grow or create purposes beyond what is sensible and limited. This infects not only the power lusts of Hussein types, but even crummy people like Chirac. Balkanization weakens them all and strengthens individuals and communities of voluntary association.

This should be our national policy: peoples should have the right to their own sovereign territories. Kurds, Shiites, Baluchi, Iranians, Tamil, Sikh, Tibetan, Kashmiri, Maronite, Druze, ...everyone. Such nations would be the consensual creatures of human longing, not the consequence of propaganda or of violence.

Sometimes - Switzerland, Canada and Belgium are excellent examples - different peoples choose to live in a single nation. These three nations (forgetting, for the moment, our national pique at Brussels and Ottawa) work. They do not fight aggressive wars. They do not build prison walls around their borders to keep unwilling subjects from leaving.

Often Balkanization is the only hope of millions of oppressed people. And, as is true almost everyone and almost all the time, liberation of some people inexorably liberates other people. Balkanization - separation of peoples into smaller, sovereign nations - is what foreign ministries throughout the world dread most. What more evidence do we need that Balkanization is the best hope for a free and peaceful planet?

Let us start with "Iraq" and "Iran" and "Syria" and "Turkey." Then we can begin using that international organization of Orwellian mendacity - the United Nations - to disestablish other fictional polities like "China" and "India" and "Pakistan." This will not make us any friends in the foreign offices of governments, but it will make us friends where we ought most as Americans to expect it: among the oppressed peoples of Earth.

Bruce Walker is a senior writer with Enter Stage Right. He is also a frequent contributor to The Pragmatist and The Common Conservative.

Other related stories: (open in a new window)

  • Three cheers for Balkanization! by Bruce Walker (April 30, 2001)
    Balkanization may be a dirty word to many but Bruce Walker thinks it's actually a very good thing
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